Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book IV

Chapter III


§6. An apparent exception to this statement may seem to be constituted in the case of the sexual appetite, by the regulation prescribed under the notion of Purity or Chastity. And there is no doubt that under this head we find condemned, with special vehemence and severity, acts of which the immediate effect is pleasure not obviously outweighed by subsequent pain. But a closer examination of this exception transforms it into an important contribution to the present argument: as it shows a specially complex and delicate correspondence between moral sentiments and social utilities.

In the first place, the peculiar intensity and delicacy of the moral sentiments that govern the relations of the sexes are thoroughly justified by the vast importance to society of the end to which they are obviously a means,---the maintenance, namely, of the permanent unions which are held to be necessary for the proper rearing and training of children. Hence the first and fundamental rule in this department is that which directly secures conjugal fidelity: and the utilitarian grounds for protecting marriage indirectly, by condemning all extra-nuptial intercourse of the sexes, are obvious: for to remove the moral censure that rests on such intercourse would seriously diminish men's motives for incurring the restraints and burdens which marriage entails; and the youth of both sexes would form habits of feeling and conduct tending to unfit them for marriage; and, if such intercourse were fertile, it would be attended with that imperfect care of the succeeding generation, which it seems the object of permanent unions to prevent; while if it were sterile, the future of the human race would, as far as we can see, be still more profoundly imperilled.

But, further, it is only on Utilitarian principles that we can account for the anomalous difference which the morality of Common Sense has always made between the two sexes as regards the simple offence of unchastity. For the offence is commonly more deliberate in the man, who has the additional guilt of soliciting and persuading the woman; in the latter, again, it is far more often prompted by some motive that we rank biaber than mere lust: so that, according to the ordinary canons of intuitional morality, it ought to be more severely condemned in the man. The actual inversion of this result can only be justified by taking into account the greater interest that society has in maintaining a high standard of female chastity. For the degradation of this standard must strike at the root of family life, by impairing men's security in the exercise of their parental affections: but there is no corresponding consequence of male uuchastity, which may therefore prevail to a considerable extent without imperilling the very existence of the family, though it impairs its wellbeing.

At the same time, the condemnation of unchastity in men by the common moral sense of Christian countries at the present day, is sufficiently clear and explicit: though we recognise the existence of a laxer code---the morality, as it is called, of `the world'---which treats it as indifferent, or very venial. But the very difference between the two codes gives a kind of support to the present argument; as it corresponds to easily explained differences of insight into the consequences of maintaining certain moral sanctions. For partly, it is thought by `men of the world' that men cannot practically be restrained from sexual indulgence, at least at the period of life when the passions are strongest: and hence that it is expedient to tolerate such kind and degree of illicit sexual intercourse as is not directly dangerous to the wellbeing of families. Partly, again, it is maintained by some, in bolder antagonism to Common Sense, that the existence of a certain limited amount of such intercourse (with a special class of women, carefully separated, as at present, from the rest of society) is scarcely a real evil, and may even be a positive gain in respect of general happiness; for continence is perhaps somewhat dangerous to health, and in any case involves a loss of pleasure considerable in intensity; while at the same time the maintenance of as numerous a population as is desirable in an old society does not require that more than a certain proportion of the women in each generation should become mothers of families; and if some of the surplus make it their profession to enter into casual and temporary sexual relations with men, there is no necessity that their lives should compare disadvantageously in respect of happiness with those of other women in the less favoured classes of society.

This view has perhaps a superficial plausibility: but it ignores the essential fact that it is only by the present severe enforcement against unchaste women of the penalties of social contempt and exclusion, resting on moral disapprobation, that the class of courtesans is kept sufficiently separate from the rest of female society to prevent the contagion of unchastity from spreading; and that the illicit intercourse of the sexes is restrained within such limits as not to interfere materially with the due development of the race. This consideration is sufficient to decide a Utilitarian to support generally the established rule against this kind of conduct, and therefore to condemn violations of the rule as on the whole infelicific, even though they may perhaps appear to have this quality only in consequence of the moral censure attached to them.[1] Further, the `man of the world' ignores the vast importance to the human race of maintaining that higher type of sexual relations which is not, generally speaking, possible, except where a high value is set upon chastity in both sexes. From this point of view the Virtue of Purity may be regarded as providing a necessary shelter under which that intense and elevated affection between the sexes, which is most conducive both to the happiness of the individual and to the wellbeing of the family, may grow and flourish.

And in this way we are able to explain what must have perplexed many reflective minds in contemplating the commonsense regulation of conduct under the head of Purity: viz. that on the one hand the sentiment that supports these rules is very intense, so that the subjective difference between right and wrong in this department is marked with peculiar strength: while on the other hand it is found impossible to give a clear definition of the conduct condemned under this notion. For the impulse to be restrained is so powerful and so sensitive to stimulants of all kinds, that, in order that the sentiment of purity may adequately perform its protective function, it is required to be very keen and vivid; and the aversion to impurity must extend far beyond the acts that primarily need to be prohibited, and include in its scope everything (in dress, language, social customs, etc.) which may tend to excite lascivious ideas. At the same time it is not necessary that the line between right and wrong in such matters should be drawn with theoretical precision: it is sufficient for practical purposes if the main central portion of the region of duty be strongly illuminated, while the margin is left somewhat obscure. And, in fact, the detailed regulations which it is important to society to maintain depend so much upon habit and association of ideas, that they must vary to a great extent from age to age and from country to country.

[ME, Relation of Utilitarianism to the Morality of Common Sense, §5]
[ME, Relation of Utilitarianism to the Morality of Common Sense, §7]